Unilever announces plans to halve emissions

Posted by Nicole Eckersley on 16th November 2010

World on a PlateGlobal consumer goods company Unilever today announced plans to decouple future growth from environmental impact.

At the London launch of Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, CEO Paul Polman explained: “We have ambitious plans to grow the company. But growth at any price is not viable. We have to develop new ways of doing business which will ensure that our growth does not come at the expense of the world’s diminishing natural resources.”

He also announced plans to help over 1 billion people take action to improve their health and wellbeing, mostly in developing countries, over the next 10 years.

In New York, Unilever Americas President Dave Lewis joined by Michael B. Polk, President Global Food, Personal Care and Home products, echoed Mr. Polman’s comments, sharing how Unilever intends to decouple growth from environmental impact and deliver more social value through its brands. “Many would say making consumption sustainable is impossible. Our view is that we have to make it possible. We cannot choose between growth and sustainability. We have to do both.”

The Sustainable Living Plan sets out over 50 social, economic and environmental targets. It will see Unilever, whose Australian brands include Dove, Flora, Streets (Heart Brand), Ben & Jerry’s, Bertolli, Continental and Lipton, halve the greenhouse gas emissions, water and waste used not just by the company in its direct operations, but also by its suppliers and consumers.

Over two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions and half the water used in Unilever products’ lifecycle come from consumer use, so this is a major commitment on an unprecedented scale.

“People tell us they want to reduce their environmental impact but find it hard to change their behavior and don’t know how they can make a difference,” explained Polman.

“By halving the total carbon, water and waste impact of our products, primarily through innovation in the way we source, make and package them, we can help people make a small difference every time they use them. As our products are used 2 billion times a day in nearly every country in the world, our consumers’ small actions add up to make a big difference.”

Other key goals Unilever plans to achieve by or before 2020 include:

  • sourcing 100% of its agricultural raw materials sustainably including, by 2015, 100% sustainable palm oil;
  • changing the hygiene habits of 1 billion people in Asia, Africa and Latin America so that they wash their hands with Lifebuoy soap at key times during the day – helping to reduce diarrhoeal disease, the world’s second biggest cause of infant mortality;
  • making safe drinking water available to half a billion people by extending sales of its low-cost in-home water purifier, Pureit, from India to other countries;
  • improving livelihoods in developing countries by working with Oxfam, Rainforest Alliance and others to link over 500,000 smallholder farmers and small-scale distributors into its supply chain.

Polman said that Unilever wants to be sustainable ‘in every sense of the word’.

“There are billions of people who want the improvements to their health and wellbeing that everyday products like ours provide and who want to live sustainably. Our aim is to help people in developing countries improve their quality of life without a big increase in their environmental impacts, and to help those in developed markets maintain a good standard of living while reducing theirs,” Polman said.

Polman sees no conflict between Unilever achieving its sustainability goals and growing its business.

“We are already finding that tackling sustainability challenges provides new opportunities for sustainable growth: it creates preference for our brands, builds business with our retail customers, drives our innovation, grows our markets and, in many cases, generates cost savings.”

Polman emphasized that Unilever did not have all the answers and that the company would need to work in partnership with customers, suppliers, governments and NGOs if it was to achieve its goals.